Review of "The Mendacity of Hope," by Roger D. Hodge

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Sunday, October 24, 2010


Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism

By Roger D. Hodge

Harper. 260 pp. $25.99

With all the attention being paid to the discontents motivating the American right, the time has come for a scathing attack on Barack Obama from the left. Roger D. Hodge, former editor in chief of Harper's magazine, claims to offer one. I would love to read a compelling explanation of why our current president, despite his legislative achievements, has ceded so much turf to the political right. Obama, in my view, has never quite recognized how obstructionist Republicans have become and has failed to confront them vigorously. His decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan is likely to prove a tragic error. And his failure to challenge Cheney-like accumulations of power in the executive is worse than a political mistake; it is a betrayal not only of liberalism but of democracy.

Alas, Hodge's critique is not convincing and, in the oddest of ways, not even from the left. "The Mendacity of Hope" is a sloppily organized, badly argued and deeply reactionary book unlikely to have any influence at all on the way Americans think about their president.

Although Hodge devotes a chapter to foreign policy, the main charge he levels against Obama is that, like all politicians in the United States, he serves at the pleasure of a financial oligarchy. If one looks at what Obama does rather than what he says, Hodge insists, the president serves his corporate masters well, structuring the stimulus to please Wall Street, designing a health-care plan so that insurance companies can make a killing and serving as a cheerleader for globalization, even if doing so means effectively dismantling the New Deal. Money talks. Obama listens.

There is an obvious truth in all this; money, of course, buys influence, and Citizens United, the Supreme Court's 2010 decision equating free speech with lavish corporate spending, will enable money to buy even more. In such an environment, it can hardly be surprising that the United States does not have, and in all likelihood will never have, socialized medicine. But to damn the major health-care reform law for which Obama pushed so hard as "absurdly misconceived," "porcine" and "the worst of all possible outcomes" is to dismiss out of hand the very real benefits it will provide to those who otherwise would be totally at the mercy of the market. Hodge may think he belongs on the left, but such indifference to the needs of real people is chilling in its lack of compassion.

Only a conservative, moreover, would choose to leave Obama and the modern world behind to write so much about the nation's founders instead. In Hodge's simplistic reading of American history, there were two forces competing for influence when the Constitution was adopted: Hamiltonian federalists who hated democracy and loved money, and virtuous Jeffersonian republicans who stood for liberty and detested financial corruption. That many of the latter owned slaves, opposed the modernization of their society and could be ruthlessly intolerant of human foibles does not bother him. At one point Hodge describes himself as among those "who pretend to eighteenth-century citizenship." He got that right. Citizens in the 18th century did not worry much about health care because they died so young.

Hodge is smart enough to realize that his leftism masks an affinity with the right. "The Tea Partiers," he writes, "are not wrong to be angry with Obama and the Democrats." He would like to see people of his persuasion join forces with libertarians such as Ron Paul. "To Americans," he writes, faithfully adhering to the 18th-century reactionaries he so admires, "all arbitrary power should be suspect, whether it originates in a private corporate bureaucracy, a public welfare agency, a public-private monopoly, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Security." How Hodge can reconcile that position with his support for a state strong enough to regulate capitalism is beyond my capacity to figure out.

An alliance between the tea party and leftists fed up with Obama is unlikely ever to happen; I somehow doubt that either Sarah Palin or Ron Paul would have as many nice things to say about Hodge as he does of them. We still need a critique of Obama from the left. To be effective, it will have to be grounded in reality. "The Mendacity of Hope" is not.

Alan Wolfe teaches political science at Boston College and is the author of "The Future of Liberalism."

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